IMAGINE the unlikely scenario. “Music written by the French composer, Gabriel Fauré” has popped up as a category on the BBC’s quiz show Pointless. Your objective: to come up with the answers that ordinary folk on the street would be least likely to think of.
So go on, name three works by Fauré, other than the blatantly obvious ones – the exquisitely moody Requiem; the popularised orchestral Pavane; or the innocently tuneful Dolly Suite for piano duo. Struggling?
OK, there’s a fair possibility you might also know the symphonic music for Maeterlinck’s Pelléas, even his only opera Pénélope. But if you wanted to name a piece that hardly anybody would know, you’d need to be knowledgeable of Fauré’s more private, more intimate output – that lengthy catalogue of songs, the jewel-like collection of solo piano works, and the delectable instrumental chamber music, all of which remain hugely underexposed in relation to traditional Fauré favourites.
Yet it’s among those much underplayed works that we discover something of the revolutionary in a composer who, despite his own lack of compositional self-belief, and not simply because he held the powerful position as director of the Paris Conservatoire, managed to exert a major influence on the direction of French music as it progressed from its stagnant, institutionalised, anti-Teutonic (anti-Wagnerian), mid-19th century stance, through the dreamy soundscapes of fin de siècle Impressionism, to a 20th-century explosion that would ultimately embrace such sexy new styles as jazz.
As one of his most recent biographers, Jessica Duchen, neatly put it, “Fauré possessed an independence of spirit and a determination to effect change that marked him out as a radical in disguise”.
Which is exactly what Perth Concert Hall will attempt to illustrate in just over a week’s time, when it presents a full seven-concert weekend from 1-3 March, focusing on Fauré’s songs, solo piano music and chamber music.
The man entrusted to engineer the event – at the behest of Perth’s classical music programmer James Walters – is Ayrshire-born pianist and French music expert Roy Howat, who will not only perform in three of the recitals, but kick off the whole event with a talk on the composer and the many misconceptions that surround his music.
“It’s a curiosity of musical history that Gabriel Fauré’s marvellous and thoroughly practical music has often been regarded as being mostly for devotees and specialists,” says the man who, on leaving his native West Kilbride, went on to study at King’s College Cambridge, before continuing his piano studies with Vlado Perlemuter in Paris, where his interest in Fauré turned into a lifelong passion. Howat is now a piano research fellow, specialising in French music, at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He says: “Fauré, himself, deplored any such idea, repeatedly telling performers not to sentimentalise or underplay his music.” What Howat is effectively saying is that this particular area of Fauré’s output has too often been wrongly played – not the fault of the performers, per se, but of performing editions that were misleading.
“If you think of pieces like the first Piano Quintet, it had often been thought of as painfully slow and a bit boring.” The reason for this serious corruption, Howat discovered, was that the tempo markings had been marked too slowly, a fault he has repeatedly come across in the extensive revisionist editorial work he has undertaken over two decades for Edition Peters.
“When you play these works as the composer intended, suddenly there’s a Romantic, passionate sweep that gets lost when the music is played too slowly.” A common fault, it seems, that did nothing to popularise the music, even in Fauré’s lifetime.
Was that what Elgar was getting at when he wrote in a letter of 1924 (the year of Fauré’s death) to his friend Frank Schuster that: “I was very sad over Fauré’s death – he was such a real gentleman – the highest type of Frenchman, and I admired him greatly. His chamber music never had any chance here in the old Joachim days, I fear: I may be wrong, but I feel that it was ‘held up’ to our loss…”
With that in mind, next weekend’s series of performances is intended to refresh our appreciation, even of the popular Requiem, which will feature (alongside the lovely Cantique de Jean Racine) in a performance in St John’s Kirk by Christopher Bell’s National Youth Choir of Scotland. But otherwise, the emphasis is on those works we seldom hear.
Howat will feature with the Cologne-based Minguet Quartet in Fauré’s Piano Quintet No 1, with violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved and cellist Neil Heyde in the solo sonatas for violin and cello, and the Piano Trio, then with fellow pianist Emily Kilpatrick in a duo programme that juxtaposes the Dolly Suite (once the signature tune to BBC Radio’s Listen with Mother) with the irreverent boisterousness of the Souvenirs de Bayreuth, jointly concocted by Fauré and his friend and fellow improviser André Messager as a whimsical spoof following their experience of Wagner’s Ring.
Singers Ailish Tynan and Andrew Kennedy perform many of the exquisite songs, pianist Leon McCawley some of the solo piano pieces, while the young Navarra Quartet and tenor Andrew Kennedy offer a rare glimpse of Fauré’s chamber music transcription of the beautiful La bonne chanson.
It’s not all Fauré, says Howat, who also sees the weekend as a wonderful opportunity to place the composer in the context of those who inspired him, as well those whom he inspired. Thus the infusion of music by Chopin (where else, in title alone, could Fauré’s various Barcarolles, Mazurkas and Nocturnes have come from?), Debussy, Vaughan Williams, Duparc and Poulenc.
“It’s hard to imagine how the history of French music would have read without Fauré,” says Howat. Next week’s weekend bonanza sets out to prove that his place in the grand scheme of musical evolution was anything but pointless.
• A Weekend of Fauré is at Perth Concert Hall, 1-3 March, www.horsecross.co.uk